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Will They or Won’t They? 5G and Wi-Fi Flirt with a Convergent Future

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The demand for 5G and Wi-Fi convergence is driven by a mixture of business opportunities and operational requirements. This reality poses the question whether the technologies can still deliver value even without an official tie-up. Learn more about if they are destined to fully converge or simply coexist.

I closed out the Wi-Fi and 5G: Which Technology Needs the Other Most? Light Reading webinar (replay available) with a simple observation: telcos have been much more vocal lately about wanting to forge a convergent path with Wi-Fi.

But does Wi-Fi feel the same?

So continues an ongoing debate about whether these two super technologies will ultimately link up to become the ultimate “it” wireless couple.

Dean Bubley of Disruptive Wireless kicked off the webinar noting that when people talk about Wi-Fi capabilities, they tend to focus on the past. But when they talk 5G, they focus on future capabilities. The reality of the in-between and where we exist on the trajectory of these technologies today is critical toward understanding whether they are destined to a lifetime of collaborative convergence or merely toleration via coopetition.

Truly, Wi-Fi has come a long way, ushering in advancements in throughput, latency, quality controls, signal reach, security and more. As Leigh Chinitz, Ph.D and CTO of octoScope (a Spirent company), pointed out, the technology has moved far beyond support for basic web browsing and is now able to support important applications.

As such, the use cases for Wi-Fi have expanded, from whole-home coverage to out-of-the-home public and enterprise deployment scenarios that have more than demonstrated the technology’s performant worthiness against historically more robust and reliable telecom networks.

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The use cases for Wi-Fi have expanded, from whole-home coverage to out-of-the-home public and enterprise deployment scenarios.

Where there’s demand, there’s a way

As always, if the prospect of a significant revenue opportunity exists, there’s a relationship worth exploring.

In a poll we ran during the webinar, 85% of the hundreds of attendees noted convergence as “reasonably” or “very” important. About one-third suggested factories, campus networks and enterprise networks as use cases that would most benefit. In fact, these are the predominant Wi-Fi users today, but many are embracing the use of Private LTE networks and looking towards 5G.

In our work with customers, we’re starting to see more demand for 5G and Wi-Fi convergence driven by a mixture of business opportunities and operational requirements for capabilities like:

  • Seamless uninterrupted handovers that would let devices move easily between indoor and outdoor environments

  • Authentication improvements allowing SIM-enabled, Wi-Fi only and visiting devices to easily access mobile networks

  • Simultaneous connectivity for an unprecedented level of resiliency that can power mission critical applications

  • Ubiquitous coverage that would leverage each of the technology’s strengths covering for the other’s weaknesses

  • Best network selection capabilities that would allow devices or applications to choose the best network based on performance, cost, or other specific requirements, to access a particular service

In each of these scenarios, complements and competitive advantages would seem to outweigh the drawbacks of competition and rigid lines of demarcation. As consumers, we’re starting to see this in our own homes, with WFH driving new norms. From a business standpoint, we’re watching as technologies like fixed wireless access (FWA) come to market faster than expected to address undeniable market trends.

Coexistence or convergence?

5G and Wi-Fi need not exchange vows to deliver a range of connectivity benefits. This reality poses the question whether the technologies can still deliver value even without an official tie-up. In other words, must they fully “converge” or can they simply coexist?

In a coexistence dynamic, we see a physical layer where Wi-Fi and cellular share unlicensed spectrum in certain bands, offering neutral host networks and offloading traffic while bringing carrier-grade QoS. Best connection methods see devices, applications and people selectively deciding and changing to the best network (this is already prevalent with iOS today). Use cases like personal hotspots make use of the mobile network to provide more seamless connectivity via Wi-Fi.

Of course, there’s only so far the technologies can take users without official convergence. In a convergent dynamic, we’re seeing two main use cases being explored. The first is real wireless LAN and 3GPP 5G network integration with both trusted and untrusted access. In this scenario, official policies drive network selection or determine if traffic should be routed over one network, the other or both. There’s more granularity of steering changes based on where the anchoring point is for Wi-Fi access.

The emergence of new 3GGP standards is formally introducing some of the capabilities discussed here, with R16 expected to include access traffic steering, switching, and splitting functionality.

Showing promise, but don’t hire a wedding band yet

Earlier this year, Deutsche Telekom demonstrated an industry-first proof of concept showing seamless mobility for an automated guided vehicle (AGV) across 5G and Wi-Fi networks. The vehicle was able to connect to both Wi-Fi and a 5G SA simultaneously, demonstrating the value of converging the two access types for better network reliability. 3GPP R16 was the foundation of the demo.

The promise is undeniable.

But this doesn’t mean convergence is inevitable. Though standards advancements are a big step forward they are not enough to clear the hurdles that litter the path ahead. For instance, most Wi-Fi devices are not able to support SIM credentials, limiting wireless network access. End-to-end service mapping still needs to be solved. Then there are robust testing efforts required to guarantee service continuity and performance.

The good news for now is that opportunities are materializing. The big question remains when demand will grow to the point where both technologies see enough upside to work together in a meaningful way.

As I said earlier, it seems telco companies are making the biggest overtures at the moment. Will Wi-Fi play hard to get or ultimately decide its ready to take things to the next level?

We’ll know soon enough.

Learn more: Read the Testing Wi-Fi for High-Performance Use Cases eBook and watch the on-demand webinar Wi-Fi and 5G: Which Technology Needs the Other Most?

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Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas

Head of Market Strategy, Spirent

Stephen works for Spirent's strategy organization helping to define technical direction, new innovative solutions, and market leading disruptive technologies which make a real difference. With close to 20 years experience in telecommunications Stephen has been at the cutting edge of next generation technologies and has worked across the industry with multiple service providers, start-ups and Tier 1 OEMs helping them drive innovation and transformation. Stephen is an ardent believer in connected technology and strives to challenge, blur, and break down the silos which prevent innovation and business success.